What I love about these books is that they approach recipes from the perspective of very young children, from the recipe titles to the numbered illustrations of the recipe steps that even pre-readers can follow. “We designed this book to enable very young children to cook as independently as possible under the gentle guidance of an adult ‘partner.’ Your child, as head chef, gets to ‘read’ a pictorial version of a real recipe and do much of the preparation, with you, the attendant grown-up, as helper,” Mollie writes in Pretend Soup.
Mollie was kind enough to take time out of her busy life developing recipes and creating artwork in Northern California to answer some questions for Kitchen Explorers:
When did you first discover that you loved cooking? Did you cook as a child?
As a very little child I was always interested in being in some kind of a laboratory setting. My brothers had their chemistry set and I was always in the backyard making mud pies. My mom had four kids and encouraged us to have independent projects going on. She would give me old kitchen utensils, wooden spoons, tin bowls, measuring cups, and those were my toys. I couldn’t wait to get out there.
I fed a whole village of invisible critters who lived between the stones of the house. I never thought of it as a chore, I loved it. As early as three, I had a daily structure around cooking that involved my invisible critters and my mud. One of the things I thank my parents for is not caring if I got dirty.
When your kids were growing up, how did you entice them to join you in the kitchen? What were some of their favorite foods or favorite things to make?
I didn’t always make my kids feel as welcome in my kitchen as my mom did because I was working on my cookbooks and the kitchen was a lab. Raising a family in a kitchen where I was also doing my work was not easy. But my daughter became a baking fanatic in high school. I taught her what the structure of the cookie was, and within that, the flexibility you have with how you flavor it. She now knows how to bake without recipes, which not many people know.
My son wasn’t interested in cooking until he was a teenager. When he was 12 or 13 out of the blue he said, “Mom, I’m ready for a fine dining experience.” From there on in, he developed a real interest in fine food. Now he’s a hip young New York City artist. He has friends with good palettes but they can’t afford to eat out a lot, so he’ll cook for them. He’s a real meat connoisseur, and just did his first rack of lamb.
What made you decide to write three cookbooks for young children?
I always wanted to do something for children; I actually wanted to do children’s literature. But then it occurred to me that I could actually write a cookbook for kids. Through my son’s preschool I realized that cooking really could be done with young kids. He had a fabulous preschool teacher with whom I ended up writing Pretend Soup, and she had a whole cooking program in the classrooms where they did serious cooking projects with the kids each week. She really tasked it out to the three-year-olds with a great deal of thought. I started volunteering on those days to watch and take notes. I started the book shortly after that.
Any advice for parents who aren’t necessarily confident cooks themselves, but want to instill a love of good food and cooking in their children?
I’m aware that mealtime, especially on weekdays, can be a pretty stressful time because everyone just needs to get a meal, and you’re trying to do so much, make it be healthy, affordable, trying to find the time to make it, having to clean up. It’s not realistic to think that your kids can cook with you every day in that situation.
Start off with stuff that is not goal-oriented; the best time is probably a Sunday afternoon when it’s raining and you can say, “Lets make some popovers or pound some avocados.” Choose a time when your blood pressure is naturally lower. If you’re not such an experienced cook, think assembly, think salad bar, taco bar. One of my favorites is Polka Dot Rice [from Salad People]: Prepare brown basmati rice with 3 – 4 different diced vegetables (some steamed, some raw), diced tofu, and a shaky bottle of soy sauce and sesame oil. You can put it out as an assembly line and everyone makes his or her own polka dot rice. Top it with some peanuts or seeds if they’re not allergic. It becomes a healthy one-bowl meal and a family togetherness ritual.
To experience one of Mollie’s assembly-line recipes with your preschoolers, try her Number Salad Recipe.
Mollie also shared a simple chocolate cake recipe adapted from Honest Pretzels, which is so easy for kids to make. She says, “This must sound very strange. You don’t use any bowls at all to make this cake — you just put everything right into the baking pan and stir it up. It looks like a mess! But go ahead and put it in the oven anyway and say to yourself, ‘I believe.’ Because a real chocolate cake will come out of that oven, and you will feel like you just performed a miracle. If that isn’t remarkable enough, this chocolate cake just happens to be one of the best ever — dark, moist, and tender. It is so good, in fact, that it doesn’t even need any frosting. Just eat it plain, or with a little powdered sugar on top, and wash it down with a big glass of ice-cold milk. Terrific! Note: This chocolate cake is 100 percent vegan. So, if you are a vegan, wash it down with a big glass of ice-cold soy milk instead.”
This week Random House Children’s Books is giving away one copy of Pretend Soup and one copy of Salad People (Cookbooks for Preschoolers & Up) to two lucky Kitchen Explorers readers (each will win one book). To be eligible to win, please leave a comment below sharing your favorite memory of cooking as a child or with your own child, or your favorite Mollie Katzen book or recipe. Winners will be selected on Monday, November 14th using Random.org, so please leave your comment by midnight PST on November 13th. Contest is closed. Congratulations to our winners, Carrie and Wiley.
Recipe: Made-in-the-Pan Chocolate Cake
No bowls are needed to make this cake; just put everything in the pan!
- 1 1/4 cups unbleached white flour
- 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup water
- 1/3 cup canola or vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon cider vinegar or white vinegar
- Preheat oven to 325°F.
- Have ready an 8-inch-square glass baking pan.
- Put flour, cocoa, sugar, salt and baking soda into a pan.
- Mix it together.
- Add water, oil, vanilla extract and vinegar.
- Stir slowly with a fork in small circles to blend. As it becomes a batter, mash, scrape, and stir with fork and spoon until smooth.
- Scrape the sides with a rubber spatula, and spread it evenly.
- Clean the edges, and then bake for 30 minutes.
- Cool before cutting into squares. This tastes good (and looks pretty) with some powdered sugar dusted on top.